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The Art of Pitching Around a Hitter

There are multiple strategies that are used during the course of any baseball game and a lot of those strategies are implemented depending on the current situation. One of those scenario-based strategies that can be implemented during a game is when a pitcher pitches around a hitter. There could be a few scenarios where a manager would prefer to pitch around a hitter, but before we dive into those scenarios, what does pitch around the hitter mean?

Pitching around a hitter is when a pitcher throws balls that just outside of the strike zone with the intent of getting the hitter to either swing at a bad pitch or allowing the hitter to walk to first base. This strategy is used when the defense can afford to allow an extra baserunner.

From the umpire's view, the pitcher in red just released the ball and the hitter in white is preparing to swing

Although this strategy can seem counter-productive to what a pitcher’s responsibilities are, there are some scenarios where pitching around a batter can come in handy.

Why Pitch Around a Hitter

Before we jump into the “how” of pitching around a hitter, let’s take a look at some of the common scenarios that would prompt a team to pitch around a hitter.

Pitching Around Good Hitters

One of the most common reasons to pitch around a hitter is because the current batter is one of the better hitters on the opposing team. If the hitter swings at a bad pitch, then that’s good news for the defense. If the hitter doesn’t swing they’ll get to take first base with a base on balls, which is a result the defense is ok with.

Teams will not want to pitch around the best hitter every time, but if the game is close and the defense does not want to risk this batter making contact with the pitch, the defense will opt to pitch around this hitter.

By pitching around good hitters, the defense is accomplishing three things:

  • They reduce the risk the hitter will drive in baserunners with a good hit
  • They get to the next hitter in the lineup, which may be an easier out
  • There is a chance the hitter will swing at a bad pitch and get themselves out

This strategy is even better when the defense already has two outs and they can afford to allow a baserunner. If the defense is up by two or more runs, then it’s usually not too big of a risk if the offense gets an extra baserunner. The worst-case scenario would be that the next hitter up gets a home run, but sometimes that’s a risk the manager is willing to take.

Pitching Around a Hitter With One Out and a Runner on Second or Third

This is a common strategy for Major League teams. The scenario would be when the defense has one out and the offense has a base runner on either second base, third base, or both.

The reason for pitching around a hitter in this scenario is that it increases the chances for a double play to occur if the hitter walks. Once the hitter walks, there is a force out at second base and if the next batter hits a ground ball, there is a better chance the defense will turn a double play and get out of the inning without giving up a run.

On the other hand, if the defense ops to pitch around the hitter and the batter swings at a bad pitch, there is a good chance the batter will either hit a fly ball or a ground ball which would result in an out.

So by pitching around a batter when there is one out and a runner on second or third, the defense will either set themselves up for a double play or get an easy out with the hitter swinging at a bad pitch.

Pitching Around a Hitter To Get to the Next Hitter

Another common strategy for pitching around a hitter is when the defense believes they have a better chance at getting an out with the next hitter.

There could be a lot of scenarios that prompt a manager to want to pitch around a hitter to get to the next batter, but in the Major Leagues, this strategy is typically used when the next person up to bat is the team’s pitcher. In the National League, pitchers are known for being below-average hitters so defenses like to pitch around hitters in order to get to the team’s pitcher.

When the opposing team’s pitcher is up to bat, the defense has more confidence to get an out. And if there are two outs in the inning, then it’s a good investment for the defense to allow one additional base runner in exchange for getting an out with the next hitter.

How to Pitch Around a Hitter

A left-handed pitcher from Rice delivers a pitch from the mound

Now that we understand a little bit about why pitchers will pitch around a hitter, let’s dive into how a pitcher will normally throw in order to pitch around a hitter.

Throwing Fastballs Outside the Strike Zone

One common method of throwing around a hitter is by throwing fastballs just outside of the strike zone. The pitch can be inside, outside, high, or low, but the result the pitcher wants is that the fastball is nowhere in the strike zone.

For this to be effective, pitchers need to make it look like they’re attempting to get an out, even though they would be perfectly fine with a walk.

When a pitcher throws fastballs just outside of the strike zone, the pitch will be a ball, but if the hitter is eagerly awaiting to swing then there’s a chance the hitter will swing at a bad pitch. When a hitter swings at a bad pitch, the result will either be a strike or the hitter will be an easier out with a weak hit.

So if a defense can allow an extra baserunner and one of the better hitters from the opposing team is up to bat, a pitcher can throw fastballs just outside the strike zone.

Throwing Breaking Pitches Around the Strike Zone

In order to entice the hitter to swing at a bad pitch, pitchers can opt to throw breaking pitches just outside of the strike zone. If thrown well, pitchers can make it look like a breaking ball will break over the plate, even if the ball ends up being outside of the strike zone.

Once again, the goal is to either get the hitter to swing at a bad pitch or allow the runner to take first base on a walk. Either way, the pitcher can try to throw breaking balls with the hopes of getting a hitter to swing at a bad pitch that will result in a poor hit.

Pitching Around a Hitter vs Intentional Walk

While pitching around a hitter and an intentional walk can both result in the hitter taking first base, these strategies are slightly different.

Pitching around a hitter is when a pitcher throws pitches outside of the strike zone, with the intent of either walking the batter or getting the batter to swing at a bad pitch. An intentional walk is when the pitcher simply allows the hitter to take first base, usually without throwing a pitch.

The scenarios to use an intentional walk vs pitching around the hitter are typically the same, but the benefits to allowing an intentional walk are that there is no risk to the hitter making contact with the pitch and, oftentimes the pitcher will not have to waste their arm strength by throwing an additional four pitches.

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Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball in an adult baseball team in the surrounding area. Read more about Steve Nelson.